- The Washington Times - Friday, February 25, 2005

BAGHDAD — The Iraqi interim government yesterday announced the arrest of a man it described as a key figure in the country’s most feared terrorist group and expressed confidence it was tightening the noose around his leader, Abu Musab Zarqawi.

Word of the capture came as insurgents ambushed a U.S. patrol, killing three American soldiers and wounding nine. Yesterday’s attack took place in Tarmiyah, about 20 miles north of the capital.

In Haqlaniyah, 85 miles northwest of Baghdad, residents said U.S. military vehicles equipped with loudspeakers were driving through town offering $25 million for information leading to the arrest of Zarqawi — the mastermind behind a wave of car bombings, kidnappings and beheadings across Iraq.

“We are very close to al-Zarqawi, and I believe that there are few weeks separating us from him,” said Mowaffak Rubaie, Iraq’s interim national security adviser.

The government said one of the three men arrested was Talib Mikhlif Arsan Walman al-Dulaymi, also known as Abu Qutaybah, a key aide to Zarqawi.

Dulaymi, who was captured during a Feb. 20 raid in Anah, about 160 miles northwest of Baghdad, “was responsible for determining who, when and how terrorist network leaders would meet with al-Zarqawi,” the government said.

He “filled the role of key lieutenant for the Zarqawi network, arranging safe houses and transportation as well as passing packages and funds to al-Zarqawi,” the government said.

During the same raid, Iraqi forces also captured another Zarqawi aide who “occasionally acted as his driver,” the government said. The man was identified as Ahmad Khalid Marad Ismail al-Rawi, who also helped arrange meetings for Zarqawi.

Their names belong to well-known Sunni tribes in and around the town of Ramadi, a hotbed of the insurgency west of Baghdad.

The government also said it apprehended the leader of an al Qaeda-affiliated cell purportedly responsible for carrying out a string of beheadings.

Mohamed Najam Ibrahim was arrested in Baqouba, 35 miles northeast of Baghdad. Officials said Ibrahim’s operation was linked to Zarqawi.

Ibrahim carried out beheadings with his brother, the government said, adding that he was being interrogated by authorities.

The attack on the Americans occurred around midday.

Lt. Col. Clifford Kent, a spokesman for the U.S. Army’s 3rd Infantry Division, said a patrol was hit by an improvised explosive device — the term commonly used to describe a roadside bomb. Three soldiers were killed and nine were wounded, Col. Kent said.

In political developments, United Iraqi Alliance candidate Ibrahim al-Jaafari said Iraq’s most influential Shi’ite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, has endorsed his nomination for prime minister.

The endorsement came after members of the clergy-backed United Iraqi Alliance openly questioned its decision Tuesday to nominate the 58-year-old leader of the conservative Islamic Dawa Party as its candidate for prime minister following the nation’s landmark Jan. 30 elections.

“Ayatollah al-Sistani blessed the decision taken by the alliance about the prime minister post. He respects and supports what the alliance have decided,” Mr. al-Jaafari said after meeting with Ayatollah al-Sistani for more than two hours in the southern Shi’ite holy city of Najaf.

Politicians are negotiating behind the scenes to forge the alliances needed to win enough backing in the 275-seat National Assembly for the post of prime minister.

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